No Doubt About It: The Future Is Electric

January 24, 2020

For a time, trucking will be a multi-fuel industry, but in the end electricity will be the dominant power source for commercial vehicles.

Today, the trucking industry has an abundance of choice when it comes to powering vehicles. Of course, there is diesel, but a variety of hybrid technologies including fuel cells, and an array of electric tehnologies including battery electric and catenary wire electric have made strides toward being acceptable fuels for commercial vehicles. Other choices include compressed natural gas (CNG), renewable natural gas (RNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and propane.

And while today there is no clear winner, as we move to a future zero-emission freight world, electric powered vehicles—commercial battery electric vehicles, fuel cell hybrid electric vehicles and catenary electric vehicles—will dominate the marketplace. This will occur because of the efficiency of battery electric powertrains for transporting freight when viewed from well-to-wheel.

As we move to a future zero-emission freight world, electric powered vehicles will dominate the marketplace.

The Messy Middle

In the meantime, we will be in something called the “messy middle,” which will feature many solutions optimized for specific duty cycles. Decisions also will be influenced by factors such as regional or local energy availability or operational requirements such as day or night operations, dual driver operations, slip seat driver operations, regional, local or long haul, etc.

Today the current technology diesel and natural gas engines can cover the entire variety of freight payloads and daily ranges when using renewable versions of the fuels. At this point, commercial battery electric vehicles are more suited to shorter regional and urban ranges with regenerative braking and with payloads somewhat below maximums due to the battery weight. Fuel cell electric vehicles prefer to operate under more steady-state conditions typical in long-haul operations, with quicker refueling time and lower weight

Future Production Timeframes: What to Expect

Overall, the volume of production-level alternative fuel vehicles is very limited today. While many manufacturers are ramping up initial production lines for the 2020-2025 timeframe, significant production volumes are likely not feasible until the latter half of the decade, after designs have been through a few iterations based on field experience and market demand has increased substantially.

During the messy middle, comparisons between technologies will become clearer as each alternative fuel and powertrain tend to perform better in different scenarios.

During the messy middle, comparisons between technologies will become clearer in time as each alternative fuel and related powertrain tend to perform better in different scenarios. The multi-fuel future combined with greater duty cycle specialization likely will mean fleets may have several alternative fuel vehicles in their operations, just as today they may have gasoline delivery vans, CNG regional day cabs, and diesel long haul units.

Weighing Advantages and Drawbacks

The messy middle is both a good thing and a bad thing for the industry. Fleets running a variety of different operations and duty cycles have alternative fuel powertrain options available to them now. These options have fewer harmful emissions and that helps the environment today.

The downside is that this variety of options means resources for things like fueling/charging infrastructure development will be spread thin. These “bridge” technologies may meet customers’ needs and could delay the eventual full deployment of all electric vehicles.

During research for the Guidance Report, Viable Class 7/8 Electric Hybrid And Alternative Fuel Tractors, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency developed this timeline for the future of alternative fuel vehicles:

  • Today: Legacy diesels dominate the market. Alternative fuel technology is relatively immature and there are many things not known about the viability of these technologies. There also are abundant challenges that need to be overcome with these newer technologies.
  • 2030: This is the messy middle where there will be many optimized solutions. It will be a time for innovation and maturation of technology as well as growth of infrastructure. Facts will replace estimates as we move through the technology learning curve for these various options.
  • 2040: This is where we will see the absolute dominance of commercial battery electric vehicles from clean energy. Fast charging will be widely available, and battery technology will have improved significantly. Batteries will weigh less, cost less and have longer life.

While the next several decades will see a variety of fueling options for commercial vehicles, eventually electric powertrains will dominate the marketplace.

While the next several decades will see a variety of fueling options for commercial vehicles, eventually electric powertrains will dominate the marketplace. The fundamental reason for this is that battery electric powertrains are the most efficient use of energy for the purposes of transporting freight when viewed from well to wheel.

If you are not doing so already, now is the time to at least start investigating the viability of alternative fuel vehicles in your operation. By delaying engagement with new technologies, fleets will miss the opportunity to influence the future and optimize technologies, operating models and policies for their own future use.

For more information on this topic, join us on February 13 for a 1-hour complimentary webinar to learn more about the report and what it means for fleets today. Register here.